Leftists always complain that FNC’s "Hannity & Colmes" is a perpetually uneven match, a game of Strong vs. Weak where Sean Hannity always gets to be more aggressive and that other Colmes fellow is timid. On the PBS "NewsHour," I’d say the situation is reversed. Mark Shields is the Hannity that always sounds a strong partisan tone, and David Brooks is the timid guy, willing to tone it down for the face time and, as Bill Clinton once put it, "preserve his viability" within the network he’s on.
After the State of the Union speech Tuesday night, Shields remembered Bill Clinton’s 1998 speech as a "rhetorical home run" and really drove home how great that prickly Jim Webb was: "I think that the old line that freshmen should be seen and not heard was totally repealed and revoked." After lauding the Webb speech’s eloquence and memorability, Brooks helpfully added: "Mark said ‘A star is born.’"
After Bush’s speech was over, Shields had this impression:
Shields: "But I guess what most surprised me about the evening was that there was less intensity. I think it was a fine speech, but I recall, and I was trying to jog my memory on this, when Bill Clinton came in in 1998, it was fire. Within 72 hours of the Monica Lewinsky story breaking."
Lehrer: "Right. I remember that."
Shields: "And people just couldn't believe he showed up, let alone, he really did hit a rhetorical home run. I don't know what tomorrow what the lead is. Almost half of the speech was on Iraq and the Middle East. Five and a half pages out of the 12-page speech."
Shields would make a lousy newspaper editor. After the Webb address, it became quite apparent that Shields wasn't just pro-Webb. He was fast friends with Webb.
Lehrer: Senator Jim Webb, Democrat of Virginia, making the Democratic response. What did you think of that, Mark?
Shields: "...I think that the old line that freshmen should be seen and not heard was totally repealed and revoked. He spoke forcefully, he spoke from his own credentials….And he confronted the president directly, the president took us into this war recklessly and the consequences have been paid in terms of isolation. It was a strong, tough statement. And surprising in its intensity."
Lehrer: "Surprisingly strong and intense?"
Brooks flexed a little rhetorical muscle: "Not for Jim Webb. This is the guy who couldn’t have a civil conversation with Bush in the White House."
Shields leapt to Webb's defense: "I’ve talked to Jim Webb about that and I’d be happy to give you his side of the story."
Brooks: "It was intense. It was writerly, and it was eloquent, and it was forceful. But you we can forget everything I said about setting Iraq aside and having some bipartisanship. There wasn't a hint of bipartisanship in this speech, a sense of well, we can disagree on that and agree on this. That was out the window. This was a very confrontational speech."
Brooks noted that Webb’s position for aggressive withdrawal or "redeployment" was not the unanimous Democrat position, but it was pushed forward by his speech. Lehrer turned it back to Shields:
Lehrer: "Do you agree? The party got pushed forward on Iraq tonight?"
Shields: I think that Jim Webb, we don't separate the message from the messenger in American politics. He is, as David said, because of his own history, his own credentials, he is a very effective messenger, a very strong messenger. So I think the message was reinforced, and I think he made it, in linking it to Eisenhower and Korea, something that hadn’t been done before, that the great American military hero of World War II, said the bloody stalemate there was going nowhere and ended it. That we are not stronger because of Iraq. That was the centerpiece of his argument. Because we went into Iraq, the United States is not stronger and more secure tonight. "
Lehrer to Brooks: "Likely to have any impact? Because usually responses to State of the Union addresses have little or no impact. What about this one?"
Brooks: "I think it will. Mark said ‘A star is born.’ I think it was way above average. Just as a speech. I think it was way above average for a speech. And it will rally I think, a lot of people, a lot of Democrats, who didn’t like the atmosphere in the room, who want a more confrontational tone, they will say Jim Webb is the guy who we can guarantee will be forceful and who will rebut it and who has the personal life story to do that."
Lehrer was either out of time or loved that answer as the last word: "David, Mark, thank you very much."
PS: Liberals watching the speech coverage on PBS (and not many other people do) were probably perturbed at the corporate ethanol spot that came right after the special program. Leading off the "Major funding for the NewsHour" announcements was a 40-second commercial for ADM:
"Somewhere west of Topeka, someone is getting out for a breath of fresh air, which is why a farmer is harvesting corn, and why a train is transporting corn, and why ADM is turning corn into ethanol, a renewable, cleaner-burning fuel. Somewhere west of Topeka, someone is getting out for a breath of fresh air, and lots of us are helping make sure that fresh air is actually fresh. ADM. Resourceful by nature."